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Folktales
by Hilary Plum

When was your most recent sighting of the Kind cat, and what evidence are you prepared to present of the Kind cat’s existence?

Kind.

I’m sorry?

Not kind, Kind. Note the short I. German for child.

Ah yes, thank you. When, then, was your most recent sighting of the Kind cat?

Ten months ago, about forty kilometers northwest of here, in the forest, not far outside one of the little towns along the old railway. She was burying a kill, a small deer. It is very rare to see this. I was at a great distance, so as not to disturb her. I returned to the kill, of course, numerous times over the next week, but I did not see her again. The kill was soon scavenged by foxes and the like, which perhaps she knew and is why she abandoned it.

But neither this nor any of your previous sightings have been confirmed by other scientists, or by physical evidence of any kind?

Kind.

Sorry?

No, no, a little joke. No, it has not been confirmed, but no one else cares, so who would confirm it? They do not know anything and would dismiss my bite mark analyses as inconclusive. And the photographs were certainly not what I had hoped.

I understand that there is also a government research program devoted to—

There is a gentleman in the government wildlife bureau who will return phone calls regarding the Kind cat, yes. But a research program that does not make. His actual work is with their bear racial purity program.

I’m sorry?

The government is very concerned that the bears who have always populated this region, from west of the Carpathians through this forest and up to the peninsula in the north, are now interbreeding with a smaller bear species, the red bear, which traditionally has lived much further east, all the way to Siberia, but because of habitat destruction has recently been crossing the Carpathians for the first time.

It’s called the red bear?

I know, this is truly his name. Isn’t it wonderful? He is often a scavenger and will live under porches or in barns or sheds, he is seen as quite a pest. And thus unworthy as a mate for the noble bear of this nation. [Waves his hand in a circle, to demonstrate the tone of this statement.] So you can see the government’s priorities.

You are not a citizen of this country, but emigrated here from—

Yes, of course, the country I was born in no longer exists. We were amalgamated by the communists and then broken apart again by their successors and the UN, all this you know. I came to this country in the ’70s.

What inspired your emigration?

I no longer wished to receive money from the government, which was, naturally, the only way of operating a laboratory under the communist regime.

So you moved your research here.

You are a very optimistic young woman. No, I moved myself. I worked for some time as an electrician illegally, and attempted to establish to the government that my education was legitimate and my scientific skills could be useful. I was then hired in a disease management program for dairies. I worked in this field—if you will—for eight years. A Kind cat began preying on one of the dairies on the southern border of the forest—now it is very fancy there, shops and that, what is it, paddleboating on the lake, but then it was still a very simple place, the forest surrounding it old growth. When the Kind cat came there, I was able to convince the government to fund my study. They are most interested when extinct species return from the dead to kill off livestock. As you can imagine.

But others contest that this too was not truly the Kind cat, and claim that the of icial dateof the cat’s extirpation, 1937, should still stand.

I am of course familiar with these arguments. But I do not know what these men believe was killing those cows, who were inarguably dead. The Kind cat has a quite distinctive track—an enlarged middle lobe on the front heel pad—and there were clear prints in blood on the flank of several of the gored cows.

Others contest that this print is easily mistaken, since a Eurasian lynx print when smeared might falsely appear to have the Kind’s enlarged lobe.

Perhaps to them, but never to me. It is not difficult to tell a blurred from a crisp impression, particularly in blood. The cow’s hides were very smooth and the evidence was unquestionable and well documented. In any case, it convinced the government to give me the lab, over the clangor of the skeptics at the time, and the government consists largely of idiots who do not wish to spend money on anything that is of no direct benefit to them or does not go straight into their own pockets, so the standards were sufficiently high.

Your work is no longer funded by the government, however.

I would not be so free with my opinion if it were. I am fortunate to have become well enough established that I must no longer be as diplomatic. This is a great luxury, particularly for a man such as myself, who grew up under a regime that denied all freedom of expression. Perhaps you cannot imagine, swaddled in the tenets of democracy as you were. [Coughing.]

May I get you a glass of water?

My coffee is directly behind you, on that shelf.

It’s cold. Would you—

Since I am the one who placed the cup on that shelf three hours ago, I anticipated its temperature even as I requested it. I will enjoy it regardless.

[I hand him the cup; he drinks of the liquid.]

Your research is now funded by the multinational agricultural company Kreuzburg Bio.

That is correct, and a matter of public record.

What convinced them to fund your research into an allegedly extinct animal? It is an unusual direction for them, is it not?

That is really a private matter. I persuaded several members of their board of the importance of the project. They sponsor hundreds of philanthropic scientific endeavors around the world, and this is certainly one of the cheapest, a pencil dot in their budget, no one even notices this old man in his woods. [He smiles and hands the coffee cup back to me, presumably to replace on the shelf, a tremor in his hand as he extends it.]

Why don’t we use this as a jumping-of point to discuss the details of your project, then—a sense of your daily research routine, yearly cycles, if you don’t mind.

I am working to document the existence of the Kind cat, incontrovertibly. The specifics are all the specifics of a scientific study and of no interest to your magazine.

Why not let me decide that?

Your magazine is read by well-educated housewives and businessmen waiting for their well-educated housewives to bring them a drink.

[Chuckling.]

Perhaps some of those housewives have bachelor’s degrees in biology, and there’s

our audience. [He does not laugh. He runs his hands along the lap of his trousers,

one thumb still trembling.] You have a number of camera stations set up in the

woods.[I gesture toward the row of small TV screens.]

Fine observation.

[He thumps his hands against his knees, then resumes.]

I use camera traps, with the urine of female cats in heat (not Kind cats, of course, but the urine of related species, which I have adjusted), set up in a sponge-drip system with a motion-activated camera. It is a common kind of apparatus. I also have a range of methods by which I look for physical evidence, in the form of scat, prints, and other markers of the Kind cat’s movement through potential hunting territories. Its ideal territories when I began my work have now all been encroached upon by development, so I have had to continually readjust the area under study, which is both a great inconvenience to me and of course a considerable threat to the surviving Kind cat populations.

I also collect information from the inhabitants of this region, about their own sightings and sightings that have been recorded and preserved in their oral or written traditions.

I would be interested to hear about the traditional stories of the Kind cat.Its name, for instance—I understand that it received this moniker because it preys on children?

Yes, yes, but by this logic we could all be named for enjoying veal or chicken fetuses, you understand. The name is unfair—unkind, even [chuckles]. But this is its origin. It is the largest and most lithe of the lynxes, and almost never preys on full-sized adults, but somewhat more often, though still infrequently, on smaller or weaker humans, such as children, this is very unfortunate. Usually the Kind cat must be sickly or have lost its territory to resort to this hunting behavior. In the old days there were tales that the strongest children could resist the attack and then the cats, as a mark of admiration, would teach them some of their hunting techniques. So that the best hunters and fighters in the village might be said to have been taught by the Kind cats. This was an expression used in the village I grew up in, for instance, for the strongest boys.

I didn’t realize the cat’s range extended that far the south, to your birthplace.

Yes, of course, they used to be everywhere, from the North sea all the way almost to the Mediterranean. They are left here only because this is the largest undisturbed habitat. In my country the last century was particularly hard on them. The collectivization efforts greatly diminished their territory, and during the wars people lived in the forests, driving them out. And of course in the Second World War, once there were people in the forests, the forests were bombed [waves hand in circle]. It is funny, but even the boys who were said to be the Kind cats’ (it was another name in my language, but means more or less the same), they were the first to be gone to the wars as well, because they were the strongest and most masculine and enlisted or were drafted right away.

But not you?

No, I was a small, smart little boy, with no father.

I’m sorry.

He was not dead, but imprisoned. He had been a newspaper editor, but with the beginning of the dictatorship he left the city for the village of my mother’s people to escape attention. There he became a teacher and had a small bookstore, but ultimately he was discovered and imprisoned for his earlier political affiliations. No doubt one of the villagers betrayed us.

[I wait a short time.]

There were many rumors of the Kind cat, during the World War.

Yes, as I said, people were living in the forests, so there were many sightings.

Even though the cat had officially been declared extinct?

“Official” does not mean anything. You seem to have great faith in it. But the universities and the governments were in the cities, what did they know of what happened in the big dark woods? [Smiles as though to chuckle.]

The cats were rumored to feed on the war’s dead. This story is told, in fact, in areas across Europe.

All cats will eat carrion, under the right circumstances.

These were the mass graves of the Jews, to be clear.

Yes, mostly Jews. Though many others as well. Many of the people of my village and the nearby villages were hiding in the woods at this time. The squads had begun coming through to the west of us and we had heard rumors of what happened when they reached a town. They arrived in our region after that winter, which allowed some a chance to flee, and most went to the woods. Although many died there in the winter, so it was not much of an escape. But I myself would certainly prefer to die in the woods, given the choice.

Do you think that this widely held belief—that the cat fed on the mass graves of the Jews—has permanently besmirched the reputation of the Kind cat, in the public eye?

I do not think the public knows or cares about the cat at all. Or thinks very much at this point about the graves of the Jews. You know, it is very strange, your question, because in the old days—the days of blood libel, I’m sure you have read of these days, they did exist—it was said the Kind cat and the Jews had a particular relationship. That the Jews could train the cat to kill livestock and prey on the villagers’ children. This was a very common story. When I conduct my interviews of the rural inhabitants in this region and other former habitats, no one mentions it, although they all must have heard it among the tales told by their grandparents. So these two myths of the Jews and the cat conflict, it seems, which is somewhat interesting, although common enough.

You do not believe that the cats preyed on the graves, that’s a myth?

It is possible, butwe have no evidence. I believe it probably occurred, but was not widespread.

If someone could prove it occurred, that would be evidence of the cat’s existence beyond its official date of extinction.

Of course.

Although perhaps unfortunate, for the Kind cat’s existence to be proved thus?

Your thinking on this point is fallacious. The cats do not care or comprehend what we think of them, and if they are alive today, it is because they have been alive for tens of thousands of years, not because a scandal of some sort will prove sufficient to resuscitate them. In any case, whatever cats may have desecrated the mass graves, as you seem to think, somewhat hysterically, this event should be described, they would be long dead by now. Those living today are their descendants of, shall we say, eight generations. Great-great-great-great—and so on, you understand me—grandchildren. And you must admit that, in the animal kingdom, the kill of another predator is what we might call fair game.

But isn’t it also true that the parent company of Kreuzburg Bio, which funds your research, invented the pesticide that would later be used for mass murder in the death camps?

That is also true.

But this does not keep you from working with them.

Obviously not. Is this what you are interested in?

Is what what I’m interested in?

This belated expose, a few wars too late. The genocidal cats, the evil corporation [sweeps hand briskly, one horizontal movement].

No, I am interested in the cat itself.

You have asked almost no questions about her. She is very beautiful.You will need to spend some time in my archives, where I have an extensive collection of photographs and artistic portrayals.

I’ve reviewed many in my research, but yes, I would of course like to see yours.

They are downstairs. We will go shortly. But what inspired your interest in her?

The Kind cat?

Yes.

I’m writing a series on things that are disappearing, or have disappeared. I explained this in my letter to you.

You went on for a long time about glaciers and, what was it, the people of certain tidal flats, but the connection is very tenuous. If you are to be a science reporter, you should note that disappears is rarely the right word.

No?

Most things, if they are truly gone, were killed off.

Would you mind taking me into the woods, at dusk, to the location of your last sighting?

There would be no point. She will not come there again.